Bethlehem--District, LVA review charter agreement
The school board’s unanimous vote to renew Lehigh Valley Academy’s charter Nov. 21 marks the first time the board has approved a charter for LVA since the school’s inception in 2002. It also marks the first time the board presented a charter agreement of its own for approval. The board is still awaiting LVA’s approval or rejection of the new charter.
Charter law grants districts in which charter schools are located the authority to evaluate and renew, or not renew, the school’s charter every five years.
“The original charter was approved by the Charter Appeals Board (CAB),” explained CEO of LVA Susan Mauser. “For each of the previous charter renewals, BASD’s administration has recommended charter approval. However, the BASD board has voted not to renew the charter each time. Our charter was then renewed by the CAB.”
The charter agreement presented by the board last month is a modified version of the original that was up for renewal this year. After a series of strained negotiations between BASD and LVA, the new charter presents several provisions to the original that both parties agreed upon and one that had been rejected by LVA that proposes a 90-student per grade-level enrollment cap on Bethlehem students.
According to Superintendent Dr. Joseph Roy, the cap was an effort to curb the ever-rising costs BASD is paying to LVA for Bethlehem students enrolled, which went from $4.8 million in 2009-10 to about $10 million last year and is ultimately paid by Bethlehem taxpayers.
“The charter the board passed will save the district $1 million each year through enrollment limits of 90 BASD resident students per grade level,” said Roy. “They have a total of 150 per grade level. This will have no impact on their overall enrollment or resulting revenue.
“[LVA has] waiting lists each year in kindergarten so students from other districts can fill any extra slots,” BASD board president Michael Faccinetto added to why such a cap would not negatively impact LVA’s operations. “It is also important to note that from grade 5 and up there are not over 90 students in any grade level and using past history we would never expect that number to rise.”
Mauser, however, says LVA initially rejected this enrollment cap because it would bring them legal problems.
“Some provisions, like the district-specific caps, LVA could not accept, because they did not follow the charter law,” Mauser explained. “Charter law requires that students from the chartering districts have first choice for any available spots. District-specific caps would limit that choice and could open us up to a lawsuit.”
Other operational provisions suggested by BASD and rejected by LVA include: making their food service self-sustaining, saving an estimated $200,000 per year; aligning their school calendar more closely with BASD’s, which would save an estimated $60,000 in transportation costs; incorporating better residency verification to ensure BASD is only paying tuition for Bethlehem students, saving a projected $10,000 per student; and agreeing to at least one public meeting per month of the LVA board of trustees for greater transparency. BASD excluded these provisions from their approved charter agreement.
“BASD has not indicated that it has had any issues with LVA’s operations in the past, other than their concern earlier this year about whether LVA should have bid out the fit-out of our leased space differently,” said Mauser. “We have received very positive feedback from the district about our operations over the years.”
The class A corporate commercial office space LVA is currently leasing – that is consuming 25 percent of their budget – is of major concern to Faccinetto, who believes the majority of this money belongs in the classroom and not in the pockets of landlords.
“[Twenty-five percent] means 1 out of every $4 is being diverted from student education,” Faccinetto said. “They are willingly paying corporate rates rather than institutional rates. I am certainly not an expert, but it would seem there is sufficient vacant space in the valley that could offer a lower lease rate. That to me constitutes financial mismanagement. Given the state funding situation, we have been forced to look closely at our expense and must control costs where we can. It is not fair to allow local taxpayers to continue to fund a school that makes questionable financial decisions.”
Moreover, what Mauser says sets LVA apart from public education is their use of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in the classroom. The IB program is a rigorous, international, research-based curriculum rooted in creativity, diversity and community service that culminates with an exam, a research project and a community service project to earn an IB diploma. Attempting to earn an IB diploma is optional; students otherwise earn a regular diploma.
However, fewer than 25 percent of students at LVA have earned this diploma. Mauser and members of LVA’s board told the BASD curriculum committee members in October that only 11 of the 22 students who attempted to earn the IB diploma succeeded.
“It’s a large accomplishment to earn an IB diploma,” Mauser told the curriculum committee members. “It’s no small feat.”
Faccinetto, however, is of the opinion that with so few students earning a diploma from the IB curriculum, the school is not differentiating itself as much as they say.
“The IB diploma is the only formal recognition that a student has completed the program,” Faccinetto said. “Without earning this the students simply earns a traditional diploma. When our team visited the school [in September] they found that the IB objectives were only minimally being integrated into the students’ classroom experience. Charter schools are supposed to provide a service or type of instruction not afforded in a traditional public school. Having so few students earn the IB diploma tells me LVA is not meeting this goal.”
Faccinetto invited LVA board members to the school board’s finance meeting in the Edgeboro Room of the Education Center to discuss any further objections to the charter publicly and civilly.
“LVA would hope that there is still a way to revisit the charter agreement that both LVA and BASD were negotiating,” declared Mauser. “BASD approved a draft that did not take any of the feedback from the charter school into consideration.”